Saturday, November 03, 2007

Some Pros and Cons of the Emergent Movement

We are getting to the point where the Emergent Church movement is no longer a new trend. It has been around long enough now that it has established itself, in some sense, in the Church universe. There is still the sense that when we use the term Emergent that people don't know what we are talking about, because people mean different things when they use the term. Mark Driscoll has this great soundbite where he separates out four streams within the Emergent Church movement. The characteristics I am listing below tend to be in place at the core of the whole group that Driscoll talks about, though perhaps not each specific congregation that would deem themselves Emergent.

That being said, I was very positive on the Emergent Church when I first learned about it a few years ago (and still am), but I hesitated to write much about it because it was still working out its kinks. At this point, I think I am ready to offer a look at some of the best things about the movement as well as some pitfalls. Let's start with the good stuff; those things that, from my perspective, the EC does very well. It is important to note that the EC is a reaction against the church as it existed in the 80's and 90's, the church the EC leaders would have grown up with. That is to say that they are reacting against a largely ineffective, dying, and out of touch institution. Most of their pros (and cons) are reactions against this form of doing church from the past 20 years. Here we go.


1. Relevance

The Emergent churches tend to greatly value relevance and they do a very good job of being relevant. In many cases the churches emerged from culture, so it was born relevant, if you will. The days of organs, pews, shirt/tie etc. are over for the emergents, because that is not what the target group is about. In addition, impractical messages on the theological significance of the Nephilim of Genesis 6 are scarce, whereas messages on social justice, love, peace, and losing a loved one are in, because those are the issues we see and hear about every day. Every part of the Emergent church is much more relevant than than you might find in other churches.

2. Conversational rather than Dogmatic

The tone of the church in the past was "We have the truth, you should (must!) listen to us." The tone in the Emergent Movement is "Let's have a conversation about death. You tell me what you think and I will tell you what I think and we can ask each other questions and stretch one another with our differing perspectives." Why the different approach? Because people felt abused and brow beaten by the church for so long. It is the old adage that "people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care" put into practice. The Emergents put a good deal of stock into listening to science, the media, the world, in order to learn and gain credibility. Emergents earn the right to be heard, and it is working very well.

3. Emphasis on Community

In the past fifty years, the church has seen salvation and spiritual growth as a very individual thing. The Bible, on the other hand, was written to communities. God created us to live and experience life (the highs and lows, the good and bad)in community. The EC has latched onto this and places a high value on community. The church has been bad at this in the last 50 years, but the EC is living this out in a very real, alive way. Emergent authors such as Joseph Myers and others have written profoundly on this topic.

4. The use of Story

The church of the past did its spiritual formation around certain propositional truths. "Here is the list of things you need to believe. Now change your beliefs to these and go live them." The EC communicates far differently, primarily in the form of stories. That is not to say that they don't communicate truth. Much is communicated when telling a story. The vast majority of the Bible, and specifically, the teachings of Jesus, is story. There is not one bullet point in scripture, as Donald Miller says. The EC has done a great job of effectively using this method.

5. Emphasis on Social Justice

The Evangelical church of the past has been pretty bad at making an impact on the world in the avenue of social justice, and they have certainly paid a price for it not the least of which is the perception to the world. The EC, on the other hand, takes God's call on His people throughout Scripture to care for the poor and to fight for justice for the weak seriously. The Emergent Churches have been the pioneers in the last few years on making social justice issues a big deal again, and the rest of the churches out there would do the right thing to join them.


Remember, most of what makes up the EC characteristically is a reaction to mainline denominationalism in the last 20 years. These following "cons", in my opinion, are areas where they have reacted too far and over corrected. That does not mean that the swing in the polar opposite direction is correct, but usually that a balance of the two extremes is needed.

1. Culture Supersedes Truth

One of the dangerous pitfalls of the Emergent Movement is that at times it seems that culture can take a precedent over God's truth. This certainly isn't true in all churches that label themselves this way or in all areas, but it can be true. In the attempt to be culturally relevant, they sometimes take it too far and find themselves in error. This is a question that some Emergent Churches still need to answer: when it comes down to matters of doctrine (i.e truth), will Scripture or culture dictate what is right and wrong?

2. Potentially Misleading as to Motives

This is a weird one, because it is a bit contradictory within the movement. What I mean by this is that in some cases Emergent ministries have some sort of a front, be it a coffee shop, bowling alley, whatever, that is there face to the community. Behind the scenes, however, are Christians looking to do ministry without telling you so up front. This seems to contradict the EC's value of authenticity, which I could have put above in the pros. I would say that this is certainly the minority of cases but again, in the attempt to be relevant, the EC can become misleading.

3. Can be Anti-Authority

Lastly, in a reaction against the horrific failure of leaders in the past 20 years in men like Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker, not to mention the countless others who didn't make such lofty headlines, the EC has really downplayed leadership and authority. It has come to the point in some places to seem as if there is no real , or at least no real power in the authority that exists. Again, this is extreme, and in my humble opinion, error. God established authority and did so for very good reasons. Certainly the failures of the past can be taken into account and accountability can be in place, but to over react and make authority almost meaningless is equally as bad.

There you have it: my amateur thoughts and critiques of a movement that I am certainly no expert on. Disagree as much as you wish. If you feel led to say "Hey! I'm in the Emergent Movement and my church isn't like that at all!" it is okay. I am not pointing to a specific body, and I think we could agree that there is enough variety within the EC that one does not represent them all.

I have a lot of respect for the Emergent Church Movement and see it to be a great thing that God is doing. Despite some flaws, it is certainly a net gain and is reaching a whole sector of people for the Kingdom that the church of 10 years ago never would have.


Nate Watson said...

Nice, fair evaluation.
It's funny--Emergent can be anti authority, and even more ANTI LABEL (demoniation, political parties, doctrine). But they now have their own 501c3. Could they become a denomination. Mamny groups (like the AG) disdained organization and labels when they were just a "movement."
Now as they are loosing steam as the next-new-thing, will they become a fellowship or denomination?

Tim said...

I would agree that this is a fair evaluation, at least of what I know. I think the EC is so broad that it is hard to pin down.

The use of story, I think, it by far the greatest pro in the emerging movement. Not only is it more biblically consistent than a 3-bullet-pointed sermon, but it stories encourage community, another big pro of the emerging movement.

I don't know that the EC is really pushing culture over truth, at least in general. But I will say that there is certainly more room to debate what is truth and what was church culture, to twist it a little. I know that when I was growing up in my fundamentalist church, I could debunk anything in culture with the Romans Road and a 3-point stance. But now does it matter to me if hell really has fire and brimstone? No, because it's still separation from God. Does it matter to me if Job, the person, didn't really exist but was a story? No, because the truth of God is evident. Does it matter to me that there are (though few) factual issues with biblical stories and therefore maybe inerrant isn't the appropriate description of the scriptures as we have them before us, no because the truth of God is not stuck in facts, proofs, and logical requirements.

Good stuff, Nick. Thanks for posting it.

Nick said...

Thanks for the feedback, guys.

Nate, I agree with both your points. Yes, they tend to be very anti-label and it will be interesting to see what charectaristics they cement into their DNA if they ever become more official.

Tim, to clarify, I don't mean that the EC does put culture over truth in a general sense (though I know it happens in specific churches), just that it is a possible pitfall, like the authority thing. Some ECs have a very heathy and cogent view of authority. Others do not. these are just the likely pitfalls as I see it.

Also, Tim, I certainly agree that story is revolutionary. I would also agree that they are more conversational (as I mention in the article), and I agree this is a good and healthy thing.